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Can Downtown Charleston Survive?

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This is a rather lengthy article, but it is a good read. However, I will summarize the general idea of it:

Downtown Charleston is loosing population. Alot of people buy these million dollar homes as secondary homes, thus leaving them empty for most of the year. This detracts from quality of life. No people, no kids. The people that have children send them to private schools. So- How can Dowtown Charleston reverse the trend?

The article offers some solutions... scroll down to read them.


Can downtown survive?

Trends threaten to drain life from heart of city


Of The Post and Courier Staff

For hundreds of years, the heart of Charleston has been near the tip of the peninsula, where pastel houses line the narrow streets of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

The area in and around what was once a small walled city has withstood calamities ranging from natural disasters to war.

Now, neighborhoods south of Broad Street and nearby face a more complex challenge: an influx of wealth so sweeping that it threatens to blur the difference between a living city and a museum.

Wealth, on its own, might present no issue. Since the days of wealthy planters who created endless moonlight-and-magnolia myths, the tip of the peninsula has been more affluent than the rest of the city.

The difference now is reflected in twin trends, the rise in second homes and the aging of the area's homeowners, which go hand in hand with a sharp drop in the number of families with children.

Together, some say, those trends threaten to drain the life out of the city's heart. They also offer a preview of what the future might hold for the rest of the peninsula.

Nancy Hawk has lived for decades at the southern end of Meeting Street, where tourists stroll among majestic homes.

The trouble is, many of those homes sit dark night after night.

"The houses are just empty. It's just depressing. It's sort of a deadening effect," she said. "It really does affect the feeling of being in a neighborhood, of actually being in a living community."

Some offer warnings of what could happen if the trends are not reversed, if Charleston's heart increasingly becomes a part-time playground for the rich.

Last fall, the Historic Charleston Foundation held a forum to address issues created by the city's booming popularity. The rise in second homes and the drop in families with children were a major part of the discussion.

Frederick Starr, who spoke at the forum and who has studied similar issues in New Orleans, said the changes are eating away at the life of the oldest neighborhoods in Charleston.

"It becomes dead," he said. "If you really want these places to be around in another 300 years, it had better be a living place and not a dead museum."


It's a gorgeous Saturday morning south of Broad Street, a few days before the start of spring, with sunshine and a light breeze making for a perfect day for children to play at the park.

But there are only two children at Hazel Parker Playground, despite basketball goals, a baseball field, a playground and enough open space for endless disorganized running. The children are outnumbered by older residents walking dogs.

This is not how things used to be.

"When I grew up, the children were everywhere," said Jane Thornhill, a longtime Charleston tour guide. "There are definitely fewer children around."

That is a loss for downtown, Thornhill said. "I think it's terrible ... not to see them around."

Frank Dougherty, one of the two boys at Hazel Parker, has little chance to play with children his own age outside of school, said his father, Park Dougherty.

Out of Frank's class at Charleston Day School on Archdale Street, only one other boy lives downtown. That's a far cry from how it was when Dougherty was growing up a generation ago, when several boys of the same age all lived on the same section of Legare Street.

Downtown has "clearly lost lots of families," Dougherty said. "I've noticed a tremendous change."

Census numbers confirm that the oldest parts of the city are undergoing a radical alteration.

In 1990, nearly 300 children lived in the eastern half of South of Broad, which is the older section of the area. A decade later, that figure had been chopped by more than a third, with 100 fewer children there.

That drop is not unique to neighborhoods at the tip of the peninsula, but it is more pronounced there.

Those streets make up the oldest parts of Charleston, those developed not long after the city's first European settlers moved across the Ashley River in the late 1600s. They're also the oldest in another way: the age of their residents.

Census figures showed the median age of residents there to be 53 in 2000, up from between 45 and 49 a decade earlier. That's older than any other census tract on the peninsula, twice as old as some areas.

There are a number of reasons for the changes, and some of them have no direct link with money.

Families everywhere have been getting smaller, and the overall population of the peninsula has been falling for decades.

But the jaw-dropping increase in the value of real estate downtown plainly is a big factor in the dwindling number of families with children.

Those able to afford the million-dollar price tags of South of Broad houses are typically not young couples starting out.

"Only certain people can afford the price of housing," said City Councilman Henry Fishburne, who often says he could not afford his home on South Battery if he had to buy it now. "When my children graduate from college, they really can't afford to live on the peninsula."

Thornhill says families now live in West Ashley or East Cooper because downtown is too expensive for them.

Certainly, the green lawns and curving streets of suburbia are more appealing to many families with children than the older neighborhoods downtown.


It's a strange paradox. The homes that line the streets of South of Broad make up some of the more desirable and expensive real estate in the world. But the more desirable they are, the more likely they are to be empty.

In places, the lack of year-round residents can make for strange dead zones, small slices of a city that are more like movie sets than real places.

Take out the tourists, and nothing would be left.

"The houses look lovely from the outside," said Nora Dillon, who lives a few blocks north of Broad Street. "But they're dark at night."

Part-time residents are not new to Charleston. Antebellum planters sometimes divided their time between plantations and homes in the city. But many say that today's vacation homeowners often spend even less time in Charleston.

There are stories of homeowners who almost never use their million-dollar trophy homes.

"There are literally people, I've been told, that only use their property during Spoleto," Dillon said.

Hawk said she notices spots where few residents live throughout the year and that erodes the sense of being in a real city.

"Hilton Head and Kiawah are wonderful resorts, but I wouldn't want to live there," she said.

Census figures back up the perception of second or vacation homes being clustered near the tip of the peninsula. In the census tract that includes the older South of Broad areas, nearly 10 percent of the homes were described as receiving only "seasonal, recreational or occasional use" in 2000. Few other neighborhoods came close to that number.

That figure might understate the number of second homes in the area. Another 10 percent sat vacant for various reasons, including "other."

The trend is most prominent below Broad Street, but those in other neighborhoods say they have at least noticed it.

"It's started in Harleston Village, but it's not a real problem here yet," said Dillon, who said that she is saddened by the changes she has seen in Charleston.

The dropping number of full-time residents is a growing concern in the area, she said.

"You don't have people that are interested in the community, that get involved in the community," Hawk said. "If the houses are empty, you don't have much of a crime watch."

Mayor Joe Riley said the issue is one of "great importance" to the city.

Charleston has benefited over the years from the contributions that part-time residents have made in preservation, culture and other spheres, he said.

But it is important that the city find a balance, he said. Too many vacation homes would be a problem.

"If that becomes a substantial pattern and too many houses and neighborhoods are those that are unoccupied for a good bit of the year, the neighborhood loses neighbors and activity," Riley said. "Too much of that would be harmful to the city."

Dillon mentioned a friend of hers who lives on Water Street, a narrow street close to the epicenter of expensive real estate downtown.

The lack of people actually living there is no mere theoretical issue.

"She says she has no neighbors left," Dillon said. "She said, 'I don't have anybody to talk to on the street. At night, everything is dark.' It's a real problem."


On one level, it might not be obvious that anything is wrong. The city's oldest neighborhoods are perhaps more beautiful than at any other time in the history of Charleston. House after house has been restored to perfection, and few if any real-world urban ills remain.

The picture is one of a near-paradise.

But some argue that the changes have been subtly eating away at the foundation of the city's core.

Starr, a former college president, calls it the "hollowing-out" of the city.

"As living neighborhoods, these areas are ceasing to exist," he said.

He thinks the trends could spell a dire future for the city's oldest neighborhoods, as real life moves out and a museum takes its place.

"The long term effect is that Charleston turns into a cultural doughnut," he said. "The whole center is turned over to tacky tourism stuff, and the real Charlestonians head to the burbs."

That is a real possibility, Starr said.

It happened in New Orleans. It happened in Venice. Those cities have more than a little in common with Charleston.

He said the ultimate effect is a loss of "cultural memory," the kind of thing that ties people together.

"Once you have a doughnut, you don't have the kind of interaction and the kind of ... cultural memory that you have when you have people living in one place for a long time. That's broken," he said. "Instead, you have people who moved to a place after they picked up a Sotheby's ad."

Many say that kind of process is already noticeable.

Roy DeHaven, a former mayoral candidate who used to live downtown, said things have changed.

"It used to be that the actual property owner was out there doing maintenance on the house or talking to the neighbors," he said. "With all the new money that's come to town, you don't have that same feeling anymore."

The changes also could serve as a prequel for neighborhoods farther north, where the same forces are at work. Million-dollar home sales south of Broad Street have ripple effects elsewhere, and rising real estate prices have forced out many residents, many black, throughout the peninsula.

Dillon said she picked her neighborhood for its diversity, something she sees slipping away.

She said Charleston is slowly losing things that make it great, things such as knowing your neighbors and them knowing you.

"It's a wonderful city to live in. It's a vibrant, wonderful city," she said. "But it's all the little things that contribute to the vibrancy of the city, and I see those little things disappearing."

It is not clear what the logical conclusion might be if the trends continue.

"Does the lower peninsula become a resort? That would be the worst-case scenario," Fishburne said.


Almost everyone living in the area seems to have an idea about what to do.

Some blame property taxes, which have soared along with property values, helping to increase the cost of living in expensive neighborhoods. Some say schools are an issue. Many peninsula residents send their children to private schools, adding to the cost of living, and some have moved so their children can attend suburban schools.

Dougherty thinks it is important to make the lower peninsula more attractive to families with children, through things such as more recreational opportunities.

He said Ansonborough field, the large open space at the end of Calhoun Street where public housing once stood, should remain empty as a place for children to play. City plans call for the area to be developed, although much of the area would remain a park.

Dougherty and other downtown residents also have been trying to pump life into Hazel Parker Playground by working with the city to hold more activities there.

"We very much wanted to have a place where our children could go and play and we wouldn't have to worry about them," he said.

Fishburne said there are steps that can be taken but government can do only so much.

"I think we have to attract people that have families and have it be a place where children can grow up," he said. "I just don't know how you can legislate that a certain number of people live in a certain area."

Charlotte Caldwell, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, said part-time residents need to be active in neighborhood affairs.

"They bought homes here because of the quality of life and the charm and the ambiance, and they need to be participating for that charm and ambiance to continue," she said.

One new idea is for a program in which property owners would voluntarily sign binding legal agreements that would restrict their houses to use as primary residences. The restrictions would remain in place forever.

Riley supports that idea, saying a voluntary approach is the right one. The city cannot simply bar the purchase of vacation homes downtown, he said.

The Historic Charleston Foundation recently completed the first such agreement in Charleston. Kitty Robinson, the foundation's president, said the overall issue is worth further discussion.

Not everyone is certain the trend can be stopped. Powerful market forces are at work.

"There are a lot of things in the city that there are no solution to, and this might be one of them," Dillon said.

Some are more optimistic.

Charleston historically has been a leader in preservation efforts, Starr said.

He is confident the city can tackle the problem successfully if it becomes serious about it.

"Charleston's more likely to get it right than any place around," he said.

Still, if something is going to be done, it cannot wait forever, Starr said.

A city can lose itself quickly.

"You wake up one day and say, 'It's gone,' " he said.

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That's a problem that will truley be a difficult to solve, there certainly needs to be a lot of thought put behind it though. Charleston is truly one of the Carolina's most dynamic cities (I believe our most dynamic city). It's appeal comes from it's character and it's character comes from it's living tradition and history. Charleston must retain that no matter what. If any city is up to this challange it's Charleston. This article certainly provides food for thought, thanks for posting it.

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Interesting article - never considered that an issue. I wonder if Charleston can compare with Savannah to see what that city is doing?

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Thats a good question. I would bet that Savannah iwll start to see the same thing happening though. I'm really not sure what Savannah's downtown population is or if its falling or anything. I know that Savannah is trying to model its Broughton St. after King St in Charleston as a shopping district. Maybe some sort of ideological exchange plan can be arranged.

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Charleston's summers arent too bad as there is usually a sea breeze... Columbia's temps usually average hotter than Charlestons because of that. Temps usually crack 100 around here several times during the summer, while it is a rarity in Charleston. I would gladly live in Charleston for its summers :)

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I agree with you Spartan about the summers in Columbia are insane!

Anyway, I think to correct this problem Charleston needs to develop the local economy beyond tourism. They need to invest in business/ industry that will create enough high paying jobs to bring people there to work & live, and not just to visit.

I think the possibility of Boeing moving there is a step in the right direction.

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I agree! I'm really hoping that Boeing will locate in Charleston (and not Mobile!). If you see any articles about it be sure to post them here so we will have some up-to-date info!

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Charleston's summers arent too bad as there is usually a sea breeze... Columbia's temps usually average hotter than Charlestons because of that. Temps usually crack 100 around here several times during the summer, while it is a rarity in Charleston. I would gladly live in Charleston for its summers :)

Tell me about it! If you think that South Carolina is bad, try jacksonville in August with 20 pounds of pads....Hot!

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I spent most of that summer in Jacksonville when there were so many wilfires in Florida... That was misery- hot, smokey, couldnt even go outside. yuck.

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I saw on the news that they expect a decision in about a month about the Boeing site.

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